Grand Ronde Tribal Councilwoman Kathleen George took a deep breath. She plunged her head into the swirling water just below the second largest waterfall by volume in North America. Moments later, she surfaced, her arm raised overhead in triumph.
Her companions cheered.
Gripped in George’s hand was a wriggling, dark brown creature. She wore a nubby white glove, to better grasp the slimy, muscular animal. Aside from its gills, it more closely resembled a snake or an eel than a boneless, toothed fish.
Friday’s harvest netted a small catch: four Pacific lamprey. The crew actually caught five, but the first one was too small to keep.
“Let that guy go,” George said.
Two weeks earlier, Grand Ronde fishers caught nearly 100 lamprey at the falls – a number the tribe’s biologists are comfortable harvesting while still meeting conservation goals.
“We tend to play it pretty safe,” said Grand Ronde spokeswoman Sara Thompson.
Before the construction of dozens of dams in the Columbia River Basin, before the U.S. government removed most Indigenous people from their homes in the region and relocated them to reservations and before the disruption of traditional lifeways, lamprey was a staple food for people here.
And even amid all that change, members of the over 30 tribes and bands that together comprise the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde maintained their connection to lamprey and continued to harvest at the falls.
“When tribal members wanted to leave the reservation, they had to get a pass,” said Grand Ronde Spokeswoman Sara Thompson. “We have the pass book that shows people getting passes to go to Willamette Falls. So harvest was always there. The connection was always there.”
Families continued to harvest the community favorite. But there was a pause in the tribe’s formal lamprey harvest for the second half of the last century.
“That pause came with Termination,” Thompson said.
“This wrong that has been done to us, we will fight it”
During the Termination Era of federal Indigenous policy, the government enacted laws based on the idea that Indigenous people should assimilate into American society and give up their tribal identities. The government claimed that the rights negotiated in treaties and codified in federal laws were preventing tribal members from doing so.
In 1954, Congress passed the Western Oregon Termination Act, ending its recognition of Grand Ronde’s tribal sovereignty (along with all other tribes west of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon). That same year, the Klamath Termination Act ended federal recognition of the Klamath Tribes. Termination unilaterally dissolved tribal membership and ended the U.S. government’s obligations toward terminated tribes, including the services guaranteed in treaties in exchange for land. Termination policies also allowed the government to seize millions of acres of tribal lands rich with minerals and timber.
Congress passed 46 laws terminating 109 tribes around the United States, including 62 in Oregon — more than any other state.
Grand Ronde leaders, including current Grand Ronde Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy, fought for decades to have their recognition restored.
“There was a core of people who managed to stay in the area, but it was the cemetery — our ancestors — who really kept us together, and we kept coming back year by year and saying we’re going to do this,” Kennedy told Underscore last year. “This wrong that has been done to us, we will fight it. And in the end, restoration was achieved in 1983.”
Still, it took decades for Grand Ronde to forge agreements with the state of Oregon to reestablish lamprey and salmon fishing at Willamette Falls. Today, under state law, Grand Ronde tribal fishers can only catch lamprey Friday through Monday.
“Our commitment to this place, to this water is in our blood,” Councilwoman Kathleen George said Friday. “It’s deep in our bones. I live for this, even if it’s only one day a year. It’s a chance to be with our ancestors and with the river.”
Four other tribes with ancestral ties to Willamette Falls fish there under treaty rights that guarantee them access to their “usual and accustomed places.”
“It’s about putting fish from this place back in our people”
On a bright and breezy morning in July, Grand Ronde Fish & Wildlife Program Manager Kelly Dirksen zoomed up the Willamette River in the tribe’s jet boat. He rounded a slight corner and the falls appeared, thunderous and unending. On the rocks to the left stood four great blue herons. The birds leaned into the breeze in unison and glided out over the water.
“The heron’s job is to stand sentinel,” George said as she watched the birds fly. “Our stories say that in the spring, there are five of them that watch for the first salmon to arrive here. So it’s wonderful to see them out here today.”
Dirksen guided the boat through the rapids, nudging it carefully through shallow channels and occasionally gunning the engine where the rocks were better submerged, until one moment where the boat listed dramatically to the left. The half dozen passengers clung to their seats as Grand Ronde tribal member and field biologist Matt Zinbreck braced the boat with a long pole shoved into the rocks.
“Okay,” Dirksen said once the boat was righted. He backed out slightly before tying off on a hoop embedded in a boulder the size of a refrigerator.
“You may have a motor on the back of your boat, but the water’s gonna move you the way it wants to,” George said.
George and Dirksen were part of Grand Ronde’s first official lamprey harvest after restoration. That was in 1997. On that trip, Dirksen estimated that the tribe harvested about 25 lamprey, or skawal in the Chinuk Wawa language.
“It was miraculous,” George said. “We came home with skawal.”
The tribe offered those fish to its members at the next salmon distribution event.
“We had a little sign saying, if you want lamprey, ask for it,” Dirksen said. “And I thought, if we have 28, we’re going to have 25 left at the end of the day. Within the first hour, they were all gone. There were all these elders that loved them and hadn’t had the chance to get them for years.”
Last year, the tribe gave out 300 lamprey to its members.
“It’s about putting fish from this place back in our people,” George said. “Back in our bodies. Having this place in our blood and our bones, which is the right way for our people.”
“This industrial no man’s land”
In 2019, Grand Ronde bought a 23-acre site along the east side of the falls. The nation plans to transform the former Blue Heron Paper Company site into Tumwata Village, and, with extensive environmental remediation efforts, create tribal access to the falls. There, the tribe will publicly present its history and living identity.
“Right now, the aesthetics are pretty terrible,” Dirksen said. “But when you actually get on the rocks, the whole world changes.”
Development plans show a proposal for riverfront cultural and event space, along with a shopping district and possibly a hotel.
“It’s just amazing to be here, and to think that hardly anybody’s gotten to even get a good view of the falls because it’s been surrounded by this industrial no man’s land for a century and we want to change that,” George said. “We are changing that.”
George said the long strip of land along the river will be focused on restoration and cultural use close to the falls, with outer layers designed with the general public in mind.
“The closer you are to Oregon City, the more commercial it will be, with restaurants and cafes,” George said. “Deeper into the property will be the hotel. And as you keep moving toward the falls, there will be culturally significant areas, with a plankhouse on the lagoon. At the end, there will be a walkway out to the falls.”
George gestured at the paper mills crowding the water around the falls – some still emitting the clicks and whirrs of active industry, others long silent.
“We want to get all this junk out of here,” George said. “And restore seasonal off channel habitat – seasonal refugia for lamprey and salmon.”
On the other side of the river, the Willamette Falls Trust announced last month that — after four years of discussion about the best way to honor the tribes’ connections to the falls and restore both tribal and public access — it has signed an agreement with PGE to conduct a formal site study. The Trust is an intertribal organization that works with private and government partners to preserve and restore sacred sites, such as the falls.
The current tribal members include Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indian and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Grand Ronde joined the Trust along with the other four tribes, but withdrew in 2021. According to Gerard Rodriguez, director of tribal affairs for the Trust, “Every federally recognized tribe with an interest in the falls has a seat at the tribal leadership committee.”
At the falls, a constant spray of mist settles on cliffs covered in yellow monkeyflower. Nearby, a petroglyph is carved on the rock face – the basis for the Tumwata Village logo.
Thompson said the carving is “a reminder not just of what once was, but also what can be.”
“It’s a sign our ancestors left for us,” George added.
“Everyone just thinks they’re trash fish”
Back on the boat, the four squirming lamprey went into a big white cooler.
Lamprey can’t pass dams using fish ladders made for salmon. They need smooth surfaces where they can cling with their mouths. For countless millennia, they covered the rocks and cliff faces of Willamette Falls.
“We’ve picked them off the rock walls before,” Weems said. “It’s pretty cool. They’ll be holding on with their mouths and then they do a little wiggle and kind of jump up and then hold on again.”
Dirksen and George said that behavior underscores lamprey’s importance as a food source.
“Think of the time when getting protein was a dangerous or difficult thing, and you could literally just peel lamprey off the rocks,” Dirkson said.
“Not only protein, but also fat,” George said. “Now, our diets are full of fat. But back then, getting fat in your diet was important. And these fish have plenty of that.”
But today, their numbers are in precipitous decline – a fact multiple tribal nations with ties to the falls are working to change.
Grand Ronde is part of the Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative, a partnership with other local tribes, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Initiative conducts scientific research to benefit lamprey and funds restoration projects.
“That’s people all the way from Alaska to Southern California and Idaho,” Weems said. “Anywhere lamprey are, there’s people working to protect them.”
Grand Ronde’s lamprey project tagged the fish at Willamette Falls. Radio telemetry sites tracked their movements.
“We wanted to see where they were going and how they were using the basin,” Weems said.
And starting in 2015, Grand Ronde’s Pacific lamprey relocation project moved the fish from Willamette Falls to above the Fall Creek Dam, near Eugene.
“We wanted to see if they could reproduce successfully and attract adults to return,” Weems said.
Four years later, the team saw the results they hoped for: juvenile lamprey were migrating out of the river system, and adults were making their way back to it from the ocean.
Still, the tribe wants to do more.
“We’re looking into another potential translocation project at a different site with the same goals in mind, of showing that there is usable habitat above the dams that aren’t getting used by the species that need them,” Weems said.
“There’s an old classic picture of lamprey at the falls, and it’s just covered in lamprey,” Weems said. “You were here today and it’s nothing like that. And that’s our goal: that future generations get to use the resource like our ancestors did.”
A public relations campaign is part of the battle.
“Lamprey are 450 million years old,” Thompson said. “They’ve been here longer than salmon, longer than trees. The ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest is literally built around these guys. But everyone just thinks they’re trash fish.”
Lead image: Kathleen George looks over a lamprey, caught at Willamette Falls near Oregon City, Ore., July 14, 2023. George is a member of the Grand Ronde Tribal Council. Photo by Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB